DEATH PENALTY: The Case of Life vs. Death in the United States by Leonard A. Stevens

DEATH PENALTY: The Case of Life vs. Death in the United States

Email this review


The fourth of Stevens' lively and thought-provoking Great Constitutional Issues, this focuses on the Supreme Court's 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, which dealt a crippling if not a death blow to the ultimate, irrevocable sentence. For drama, Stevens shrewdly replays Furman's crime from the viewpoint of the very sympathetic victim (white) and goes on to describe the bereaved wife's subsequent distress and terror. The perpetrator is black, young, male, and feeble-minded; his lawyer is a civil-fights-minded black aware that the ""black-on-white"" aspect of the crime would lose him the case in the local (Savannah) and state (Georgia) courts. The U.S. Supreme Court's ultimate decision rested chiefly on the arbitrary and discriminating application of the death sentence (meted out to only one in ten convicted of a capital offense); thus, states were free to rewrite sentencing criteria, as only two justices deemed the punishment ""cruel and unusual"" in itself. As usual, Stevens alternates between the you-are-there courtroom drama of Furman's case and well-sharpened background briefings: on deterrence as an argument for the sentence, on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's long fight against capital punishment and their definition of the issues, on the changing definition of ""cruel and unusual."" The case, he makes clear, ""was not played out in a TV kind of ideal legal world, where murderers receive their just punishment after an utterly fair jury . . . has carefully determined guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. A lot of what went into Furman's fate had been seeded. . . in courthouse participants' experiences, their instincts, their education or lack of it, their race and color, and their attitudes toward one another."" It is all these intangibles which you won't find in the law books that give Stevens' summaries their immediacy and dimension.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1978
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan